This past Saturday, as I stood on the sidelines of my daughter's soccer game, it struck me: I was looking at a group of 9-year-olds of all sizes. Some, like my daughter, are tiny spitfires of energy. Others have already hit a growth spurt and are nearly my height (all of 5-foot-5). But while there is no uniformity in height, they all have one thing in common: they are all relatively thin.
Which got me thinking. Are they thin because of soccer or are they playing soccer because they're thin and in shape? And where are the kids we keep hearing about in the discussions of the nation's "obesity epidemic"? Aren't they the kids that need this kind of physical activity the most?
"The extremely overweight kids are not out there on traditional teams either because they've been teased about their weight and lack of coordination or because they haven't been presented with the opportunity," says Dr. Dana Weintraub, project director of the Sports to Prevent Obesity Randomized Trial (SPORT) at Stanford University. "But whether these kids are overweight because they are less active or whether they are less active because they're overweight doesn't matter. The solution is to get these kids involved in sports to encourage weight loss and a healthier lifestyle."
Dr. Weintraub decided to test her theories in East Palo Alto, Calif., the lower-income community bordering affluent Palo Alto, home to Stanford University. With an objective to determine whether an after-school sports program could reduce weight gain in low-income, overweight children, Dr. Weintraub and her colleagues recruited 21 fourth- and fifth-graders with a BMI (Body Mass Index) at or above the 85th percentile into the six-month study, with nine participating in a daily, after-school sports program and the remaining 12 taking a weekly health education class instead.
"We chose coed soccer as the team sport because it's an easy sport to teach to children with varying skill and experience levels," says Weintraub. "Plus, even if a child is not very skilled, he or she is still very physically active and running on the soccer field, which was our primary goal."
At the end of the trial period, the results firmly demonstrated that playing sports -- in this case, soccer -- every day after school could really help these overweight kids lose weight, improve their eating habits, and increase their confidence and self-esteem. What did the kids like best about being on a sports team? Answers ranged from having fun, making friends, and being part of a team.
The added benefit? "Even the kids who initially said 'I don't like sports' ended up enjoying themselves and finding that they did like sports," Weintraub says. "Eight of the nine children in the soccer program stated that they would like to continue to play on a soccer team and two of them even joined their school's competitive soccer team!"
By giving overweight kids the opportunity to experience team sports in a positive, supportive environment, Weintraub succeeded not only in helping these children lose weight, but also in changing these kids' perceptions of sports in general, something that will last a lifetime.
"There are so many intangibles that you get from participating in a team sport like soccer that go beyond the immediate physical activity," concludes Weintraub. "Learning to work with your teammates, learning how to lead, and having positive role models in the coaches are keys for success all through life and kids in team sports learn these invaluable skills."
(Emily Cohen is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, Calif. She is the mother of a son, 12, and a daughter, 9, who both play multiple sports. She has been a team manager for her children's soccer, baseball and softball teams.)